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(The RAND Blog)

Learning from School Leaders About SEL During a Time of Crisis

Photo by allensima/Getty Images

by Laura S. Hamilton and Kai Fierle-Hedrick

September 4, 2020

“We have to take care of our kids for sure, but we also need to take care of our staff so we can take care of our kids.” — assistant principal in a U.S. urban school district

The quote above is only one of many school leader voices we collected in late spring and early summer 2020 through RAND's nationally representative American School Leader Panel and in virtual community dialogues with the #PrincipalProject's national Principal Panel. As this assistant principal reminds us, uncertainty and disruption can take a toll on students and staff, and school leaders understand the value of social and emotional learning (SEL) to ensure the well-being of everyone in their schools, regardless of what form schooling takes. Effective SEL involves promoting competencies such as self-awareness and teamwork, creating supportive school and classroom climates, prioritizing relationships, and providing culturally relevant, equitable learning opportunities (PDF). Educators across the country believe, and research confirms, that SEL supports rather than detracts from academic learning.

By synthesizing the perspectives of principals who participated in our research, we identified how they feel SEL needs to change to meet the needs of the current moment and what they need to facilitate it in their schools.

Educators across the country believe, and research confirms, that SEL supports rather than detracts from academic learning.

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Schools Need Remote SEL Resources

Roughly a quarter of school leaders in the RAND surveys expressed a “major” or “very major” need for high-quality materials to support SEL during building closures, especially those in urban communities and in schools serving high proportions of low-income students and students of color. School leaders in the community dialogues (PDF) also wanted policymakers and funders to be aware of the need for immediate as well as longer-term, recovery-focused SEL support for school communities.

SEL Provides a Way to Improve Academic Instruction

Schools can integrate SEL into instruction through approaches like exploring emotions of characters in novels or using break-out rooms in video apps to encourage small-group discussion, but they need tools and guidance to facilitate this. In the community dialogues (PDF), school leaders also saw the current moment as an opportunity to reexamine the extent to which traditional classroom instruction is effectively serving students: “Maybe we need to be asking ourselves if what we were doing is still what we need? Is it even effective?”

SEL Assessment Should Proceed with Caution Right Now—and Always

Teachers in RAND's survey were more likely in spring 2020 to say they needed guidance or tools to assess students' social and emotional well-being than to assess their academic learning. SEL assessment can provide crucial information to guide instruction and resource allocation, but school leaders should ensure that teachers are familiar with published guidance to inform assessment decisions.

Engagement and Relationships Matter, Especially Remotely

RAND's surveys identified a need for strategies to improve students' engagement in remote learning. In the community dialogues school leaders described distance learning as negatively impacting student engagement. However, they also observed that teachers who normally cultivate strong student relationships have seen stronger student engagement in distance learning. Educators need time and support to build relationships with students and families—including strategies to virtually recreate the formal and informal interactions they normally rely on to forge connections.

Educators need time and support to build relationships with students and families.

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SEL Can Facilitate and Promote Racial Justice and Equity

Following the murder of George Floyd, school leaders voiced deep concern for the well-being of their students, especially their Black students who are navigating the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism. Schools can draw on guidance to adapt SEL strategies to emphasize issues related to equity. School leaders in our community dialogues argued that schools should adopt SEL approaches that acknowledge the contexts in which students live, including helping educators build the skill sets required to navigate difficult conversations about power, privilege, and race.

Adults' Well-Being Is an Important Precursor to Student SEL

School leaders will need to support the social and emotional well-being of adults in their buildings to ensure those adults can provide for students' needs. In RAND's teacher surveys, many teachers expressed feelings of burnout or loneliness, and more than two-thirds said they had major concerns about the well-being of their students.

School leaders' jobs have always been complex, challenging, and crucial for ensuring high-quality, equitable learning for students. This is the case now more than ever, but it would be easy for SEL to fall by the wayside as school leaders work to address students' health, safety, and learning loss. Our work with school leaders indicates that they value SEL, and most say it is a larger priority in fall 2020 than it was last year. But following through on this priority could require policymakers and funders to take seriously the perspectives and concerns that school leaders have shared.


Laura Hamilton is a senior behavioral scientist and distinguished chair in learning and assessment at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. She directs the RAND Center for Social and Emotional Learning Research and codirects the American Educator Panels, RAND's nationally representative survey panels of teachers and principals. Kai Fierle-Hedrick is the founder and lead facilitator of Create Knowledge, a consulting firm that works at the intersection of learning and evaluation, organizational change, and DEIJ (diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice) to help change agents strengthen their practice and make meaningful progress. In 2019 and 2020, in her previous role as an evaluator at Vantage Evaluation, she worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch and lead the #PrincipalProject's Virtual Principal Panel and co-facilitated the panel's COVID-19 community dialogues. The #PrincipalProject Virtual Principal Panel is currently convened by ResultsLab.

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